A few months back I wrote a piece about the location of a missing child. In the days after the piece was published I was interviewed on the radio about my thoughts and the question that came up was whether or not our kids are safe. I was asked about whether or not the idea of a person prowling the streets in a white van was a legitimate fear. I was a bit stumped by the question and after reading and thinking and researching the question my simple answer is I don’t know.
The idea of a white van prowling the streets has long been an image that parents, school kids and the media have perpetuated. We hear the conflicting messages about childhood obesity and children needing to be physical and then we receive circulars home from school warning us about attempted abductions in the local area. It makes it difficult to let our kids roam free.
A research study by Deakin university found that one of the top four reasons why we don’t use our local amenities is a fear of strangers – our fear of allowing our children to move about in our local area affects not only the well worn path between home and school but our attempts to let our kids play in our local area.
The data around attempted abductions is a little difficult to capture – some attempts might not be reported, some kids might not tell parents or maybe they are captured under different sub categories. Its difficult to confirm whether or not the white van actually exists. Most recent figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology state that just over 750 abductions occurred during one calendar year and that just over half were by a stranger. Children made up less than 20% of the cases.
My daughter’s school recently sent home that warning. We tread a difficult line as parents of wanting to up skill our kids with the right tools so that if the situation arises they know what to do but you also don’t want to scare the bejeezus out of them.
The Local Police suggest that if a child is concerned about the behavior of a stranger they should yell ‘GO AWAY, I DON’T KNOW YOU’ to alert the attention of passers by. I guess it’s a way of telling people that the kid is not simply arguing with a person they know.
I practiced this with my six year old who thought I was joking for the first 5 minutes but then once she realised that I was suggesting this actually happens her little eyes welled up and she kept asking why someone would do that to a child. We finally (after some significant anxiety, stress and chocolate) managed to get to a place where we could practice the yell and then the usual ‘what’s the number for the police’ dance but I walked away just not entirely sure that I had skilled her up?
The image of the white van circling our streets isn’t a myth but it isn’t an everyday occurrence either. The balancing act that parents, carers and educators have to manage is the need to inform versus the need to not trigger anxiety. Our kids need to have a balanced idea of what to do when something they don’t expect happens but the skill of being able to assess the scene isn’t something that most kids know how to do when they are little (or even when they get big!)
I guess all I can do is make sure my kids can yell really loud, that they feel confident in telling me when something happens and that the community is a safe place, most of the time. Other than that I’m not quite sure what else we can do?
Sarah Wayland has been working as a social worker in the missing persons field since 2003. She is a mum of two and is currently completing postgraduate studies in the field of hope and loss at the University of New England. Visit Sarah’s blog here.
How do you handle stranger danger with your kids?